The Evidence for the Resurrection: Generalizations and Assumptions

History or Legend?

Posted on the Christian website, Theology Web, earlier today:

There are many Christians who believe that the Resurrection of Jesus is one of the most attested, if not the most attested, event in Antiquity (read here).  I believe that this is a blatantly false claim.  I believe that the alleged bodily Resurrection of Jesus is based on nothing more than assumptions and generalizations.

When analyzing an historical claim, what kind of evidence do historians prefer?  Answer:  Multiple, non-biased, contemporaneous sources.

Let’s use the military exploits of Alexander the Great as an example.  Let’s say that there is one stele, in Macedonia/Greece, which describes a certain battle that Alexander is alleged to have won.  That is certainly evidence, but it could be biased.  It could record a legend.  But what if we have the stele and several accounts from three Greek generals who fought with Alexander in this battle?  That is much better evidence.  But it still could be biased.  Maybe all three generals were simply repeating the Greek version of the outcome of the battle that isn’t historically accurate.  Maybe the outcome of the battle was a “draw”.  But what if the opponents in the battle, let’s say the Persians, recorded the same story as did the Greeks?  Now we have evidence from an adversarial source making the same claim.  This is very good evidence.  And of course if even more adversarial sources recorded the same event, such as if the Egyptians recorded the outcome of this battle between the Greeks and the Persians, with the same details, that makes the historical claim for this event very strong.

So let’s look at the evidence for the Resurrection.

Do we have any contemporaneous accounts of this event?  Do we have any writings, written during the lifetime of Jesus, by any author, Christian, Jewish, Roman or other who recorded Jesus’ amazing feats and the claim of his Resurrection?  No. Not one.  No contemporaneous Christian, Jew, Roman, or pagan wrote down anything about the most amazing event to have happened in all of human history!

So let’s look at what Christians claim to be “evidence” for this alleged event, the overwhelming majority of it coming from a biased source—the Christian New Testament:

First, let’s start with the empty tomb

Is an empty tomb evidence of a resurrection?  Answer:  No!  An empty tomb is only evidence of an empty tomb!  Christians have convinced themselves that there is only one plausible explanation for this particular tomb being empty but this is absurd.  If tomorrow morning your local newspaper reports that an empty tomb has been discovered in your local cemetery, the last explanation that is going to come to your mind is a resurrection. 

“But there were Roman guards at the tomb round the clock from the moment Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb to the moment that angels came and rolled away the stone on Sunday!” 

No there were not! 

Even if the “guard story” in Matthew is historical (which even many Christians scholars doubt), the author of Matthew specifically states that there was a period of time when the tomb was not guarded.   Any number of people could have moved the body during that time period for any number of reasons.  It is mind-boggling how Christians believe, based on a plethora of assumptions and generalizations, that a resurrection is more plausible than that someone moved the body.

“No Jew would move a body on the Sabbath.”

This is a generalization.  We have evidence from the OT that under certain circumstances, devout Jews will break the Sabbath.  In addition, after sundown on Saturday night, it is no longer the Sabbath.  If there were no guards, someone could have moved the body during this time, prior to Sunday morning.  In addition, this statement assumes that the only people who would have moved the body were Jews.  There were Romans and other pagans in Jerusalem at the time.  The idea that a resurrection is a more plausible explanation than that a Jew, Roman, or other pagan took the body is simply wishful thinking on the part of people who very much want to believe this supernatural tale.

“No Jew living in an Honor-Shame Society would have believed the very shameful Resurrection claim unless they had seen a resurrected body with their own two eyes.”

Again, a generalization based on assumptions.  This assumption can easily be proven false.  The Jews in Asia Minor and Greece that converted to Christianity based on Paul’s preaching did not see the resurrected body of Jesus with their own two eyes!  They believed the story based on hearing it from someone else (second-hand information) and by “searching the Scriptures”.  If the “Scriptures” can be searched and evidence for a shameful dying-on-a-cross/resurrected Messiah can be found, one doesn’t need to see a resurrected dead body to believe this supernatural tale.  These facts prove that some first century Jews were “ripe” for believing this story.  They only needed a persuasive preacher to convince them.  So what does all this tell us:  We should not be shocked when a small minority of a particular group of people believes a drastically new belief system…even if they are first century Jews!

“We have eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection.”

Prove it!  You can’t.  A substantial number (some claim the majority) of New Testament scholars doubt that the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.  What is known about these four books is this: they were written decades after the alleged events, written in the third person, by anonymous authors, writing in far away lands, in a foreign language, some of them written in very elegant prose.  It is a huge stretch of the imagination that an “unlearned” fisherman wrote the most stylistic and elegant of the four books, the Gospel of John.  Possible?  Sure.  Probable?  Absolutely not.

In addition, it has been shown that two, maybe three of the four gospels borrow heavily from the first.  Why would Matthew (and possibly John, using Mark as a basic template for his story) plagiarize large sections of Mark’s book, when Mark was not an eyewitness?  And if Luke was obtaining his information directly from eyewitnesses, why would he plagiarize a large percentage of Mark’s book into his own gospel?  That would mean that at best, Luke was quoting John Mark, who was quoting Peter, who was telling stories about events which had happened in previous years (Mark was not written until 65-75 AD).  That is third hand information, folks!  And we have no proof that Luke’s “eyewitness accounts” were not simply stories of “eyewitness accounts” passed down by word of mouth.

“Oral traditions in first century Judaism were meticulously guarded for accuracy.”

Generalization. 

Can Christians prove that there were never any exceptions to this generalization?  No.  Are we to believe that every story that circulated in first century Judaism maintained its accuracy?  It may be true that the oral tradition of the Hebrew Bible was closely guarded for accuracy, but can we really be sure that stories of angels, dead bodies rising out of their graves, and levitations into clouds were never embellished or changed?  Don’t the gospels themselves prove this generalization false?  Compare the four stories of the Resurrection in the four gospels.  There are some very significant differences, in particular, Matthew’s claim of guards at the tomb, a claim that no other gospel author mentions.  And when did all the disciples see the resurrected Jesus?  One gospel says that the eleven all saw him on the same day of the Resurrection in the Upper Room, while another says that Thomas was absent and did not see Jesus until a week later.  In one gospel the disciples are told to go to Galilee and in another they are told not to leave Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit!  Yes, Christians have harmonizations for each of these issues, but one must admit that the stories themselves contain significant differences.

“But the disciples would not die for a lie.”

Assumption.  We have no evidence that even one of the original Eleven died because he refused to recant seeing a resurrected body, other than Church tradition, written centuries later.

“The amazing growth of Christianity is evidence that the Resurrection was true.”

Major assumption!  Many strange sects, of many different religions, have seen amazing growth, even under severe persecution.

“But even some non-Christian scholars believe that the Resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence, such as the Jewish scholar, Lapide.”

So what?  Imagine today if one Jewish scholar declares that he believes that the Mormon claim of ancient, sea-faring Hebrews colonizing North America is true.  Would that be sufficient evidence for all of us to believe the Mormon claim?  Of course not.

“But the Resurrection has to be true because Jesus fulfilled all the prophecies in the Old Testament.”

Assumption after assumption after assumption.

First, even if we assume that all the alleged prophecies in the Old Testament that Christians claim point to Jesus being a suffering/dying/virgin-born Messiah are true, that still doesn’t prove that Jesus’ dead body exited his tomb.  Where in the Old Testament does it explicitly state that the Messiah will be buried in a sealed tomb and that his resurrected body will somehow exit the tomb and ascend into heaven?  Nowhere.

Secondly, the claim that the Old Testament talks about Jesus is a major Christian assumption.  The overwhelming majority of Jewish scholars say that the Old Testament (the Jewish Bible) says NOTHING about Jesus and that all the passages that Christians claim point to Jesus are mistranslated or misconstrued.  Again, which is more probable:  First century Christians, desperately looking for any evidence to support their belief that Jesus is the Messiah, scoured the Old Testament for passages which could be construed to refer to Jesus; Christians translators then slanted their translations of those passages with a bias towards the Christian interpretation…similar to what Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Mormons have done with the New Testament, discovering passages which prophesy things that no Christian for the last 2,000 years has ever heard of…or…a dead man really did exit his sealed tomb in a supernatural body to ascend into the clouds??

“But Papias knew that John Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark and Papias knew Polycarp.”

Papias never says that he knew any alleged eyewitness to the Resurrection personally and Papias never states that any disciple of an eyewitness told him the details of the Resurrection.  Even if Papias knew Polycarp, and Polycarp was a disciple of John, son of Zebedee, is that proof that Polycarp told Papias about an empty tomb and the details of the post-death appearances of Jesus?  No.  Maybe John, son of Zebedee, only had a vision of Jesus, which he believed to be a sign that Jesus had bodily risen from the dead, and that is what he told Polycarp.  We just don’t know!  We have no statement from Polycarp in which he details the events of the Resurrection as told to him by John, son of Zebedee.

“But Paul was an eyewitness to the Resurrected Body of Jesus.”

Nope.  Paul says himself in Acts 26 that his experience on the Damascus Road was a “heavenly vision”.  A vision of a talking bright light is not the same as seeing and touching a resurrected dead body.

“But Paul would have discussed the Resurrection details with the apostles during his several trips to Jerusalem.”

Assumption.  Paul doesn’t tell us what he discussed with the Eleven.  Maybe the Eleven “saw” Jesus in the same fashion that Paul “saw” Jesus:  a bright, light in a vision.

“But we have the Creed in First Corinthians 15 that says that 500 people at once saw Jesus.  Five hundred people can’t all have the same vision.”

Who were these five hundred?  Where did this sighting occur?  What did they all see?  Did they all see a cloud formation in the sky that they all thought was Jesus?  Did they see “Jesus” in the same way that thousands of Roman Catholics, in the same location, all at the same time, have seen “Mary”?
We don’t know because neither Paul nor anyone else gives us any details!

“But Paul says that most of the five hundred were still alive, so if he had been lying or mistaken, people could have verified this claim.”

Assumption.  Paul specifically states that he got this information from “others”.  Where did these “others” get their information?  For all we know the source of this “five hundred” claim came from one guy showing up in Jerusalem five years after the Crucifixion and saying, “Hey, my cousin in Persia says that five hundred people there saw Jesus all at the same time, and most of them are still alive to verify the story.”

And voila!  This “appearance” of Jesus gets added to the “Creed” which already listed the names of all the prominent men in the Church who had had visions of Jesus, similar to Paul’s.  We don’t know how this Creed developed.

“But if the Creed was written within five years of the Resurrection, it had to have occurred.”

Assumption.  As an example: a story circulated very shortly after the death of Charles Darwin, that on his deathbed he had converted to Christianity.  This story continued to circulate in Christian circles for years, even though the children of Darwin, who were present at his bedside when he died, were still alive and repeatedly denied the claim.

So you see, folks, the evidence for the Resurrection is so poor that in no way can any Christian justify claiming that the Resurrection is the most attested event in Antiquity.  It most certainly is not.  It is a supernatural claim propped up by generalizations and assumptions.

If we were to find out that Alexander the Great did not win a particular battle that historians have always believed he won, what difference would it make in each of our lives?  Answer:  Not much if any.  But imagine the consequences if the world was given absolute proof that Jesus is still dead.  That the Resurrection did not happen.  The lives of millions of people all over the world would be drastically affected and changed.  I believe that this points out the fundamental reason why millions of people are willing to believe the tenuous evidence, if it can be called that, for this supernatural claim:  their entire world view and their life depends on it being true!

If the Resurrection of Jesus were viewed with the same dispassion as any other historical claim from Antiquity, very few people would claim that this event ever happened.  The evidence just isn’t there.

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16 thoughts on “The Evidence for the Resurrection: Generalizations and Assumptions

  1. A very revealing blog. Your handling of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is haphazard and lacks discipline. You coddle together skeptical responses to some of the evidence for the resurrection and then you act as if you have provided defeaters. You have not. For example, you write,

    >>”We have eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection.”

    Prove it! You can't. A substantial number (some claim the majority) of New Testament scholars doubt that the four Gospels were written by eyewitnesses. What is known about these four books is this: they were written decades after the alleged events, written in the third person, by anonymous authors, writing in far away lands, in a foreign language, some of them written in very elegant prose. It is a huge stretch of the imagination that an “unlearned” fisherman wrote the most stylistic and elegant of the four books, the Gospel of John. Possible? Sure. Probable? Absolutely not.” < < The doubts of some NT scholars concerning the authorship of the four Gospels does not mean that whomever the writers were did not witness the resurrected Jesus. If the gospel attributed to Matthew was actually written by a “Judah Whoknowswhoheis” and we don't know who this writer is, that doesn't mean the content of the Gospel is reduced to falsehood. Rather, it means we would look for evidences to hopefully determine who the writer was and if the writer is giving us information in accord with what we know today about the time period he claims to be writing in. We can't merely wave away the content of the book simply because we aren't entirely sure of its authorship. In your case, you haven't examined any of these types of questions and dealt with them. Indeed, you make stupid assertions such as, ” What is known about these four books is this: they were written decades after the alleged events…” and then conclude you are right. “What is known” about the Gospels is far more intricate than your hand waving exercise on this blog. For others considering abandoning their faith because of what you read on this blog. You must move VERY slowly in considering what is being presented by Gary. There is a VAST array of Biblical scholarship “out there” that can be closely considered. Yet the bottom line is YOUR faith which God has given to you through His Son Jesus Christ. That isn't something to toss into the trash bin simply when confronted with information attacking your faith. Examine the arguments offered by Gary, but then go much further and take the time to examine as many scholarly works on the topic that you can. Don't be hasty. Continue to pray and ask for God's guidance.

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  2. I would like to add to my response above that Gary has a very rudimentary understanding a New Testament attestation. What NT scholars mean by “attestation” concerning the four Gospels, for example, is the result of a process affirming the historical reliability of these documents. Another way of putting this is certain questions about the documents are being asked and answered by the evidence. Questions such as, “How many copies of the document in question are available?” and “Where were they found” and “Are there variances to the text and what are they?”

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  3. One last point concerning attestation… There isn't a NT scholar alive who claims the historical reliability of the NT “proves” the resurrection of Jesus occurred. Rather the trustworthiness of these texts tell us that we are dealing with truth claims and not fictional writing.

    Gary's question is “Why should I believe the writers of the gospels?” And an answer from examining the reliability of the NT is the gospels are amongst the best attested ancient texts in the world, if not the best. Yet that fact in isolation does not “prove” the resurrection of Jesus. What that fact gives us is the confidence we are dealing with actual testimonies of real people in history. You certainly don't have to believe their truth claims, but the texts themselves aren't as easily dismissed by a keyboard warrior blogging that Christianity is a pack of lies. If Gary really believes his rants can hold water, then he should seek publication in journals where his thoughts can be reviewed by those working in the field of apologetics.

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  4. I agree with anonymous. Always listen to both sides of an issue. I would encourage you to read both Christian scholars and apologists such as Mike Licona and prominent skeptics, such as Bart Ehrman. No need to make a hasty decision. But I would encourage you to make your decision based on the facts, not based on emotions or fear.

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  5. I never said that just because most NT scholars believe that the Gospels were NOT written by eyewitnesses that we should toss the whole book out as a collection of lies and untruths.

    However, the fact that the book was most probably not written by an eyewitness should increase our skepticism about any very extra-ordinary claims in the books such as water-walking, water-to-wine tricks, and dead men walking out of sealed tombs to fly off into outer space.

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  6. How can one determine the historical reliability of any of the supernatural claims in the Bible? That is the issue.

    Skeptics do not claim that every statement in the Bible is false. We agree that there are some factual statements such as the occupation of Palestine by the Romans during the life of Jesus, and most of us agree that Jesus most likely existed, etc. But the key to understanding the Bible is sifting out facts from fiction (superstitions)and embellishments.

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  7. Dear Anonymous,

    Would you kindly clarify this statement:

    “the gospels are amongst the best attested ancient texts in the world”

    If you are saying that the gospels are the most studied texts of Antiquity, I agree. If you are saying that the gospels have the most copies of any text of Antiquity, I agree. But if you are saying that just because we have more copies of the gospels, and, they have been the most studied texts of Antiquity, we can believe what they say is historical fact, I would like to see your evidence to back up that statement.

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  8. Anonymous: “One last point concerning attestation… There isn't a NT scholar alive who claims the historical reliability of the NT “proves” the resurrection of Jesus occurred. Rather the trustworthiness of these texts tell us that we are dealing with truth claims and not fictional writing.”

    Most skeptics, including me, do not believe that the authors of the gospels were lying or intentional writing fiction to deceive their readers. But just because someone believes something to be true, especially when it is not based on their own eyewitness experiences but upon things they have been told by others, doesn't mean that what they believe is true IS true. As the saying goes, “Extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary evidence.” I think that the Gospels fail to meet this standard.

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  9. As I say above, I encourage Christians, and persons of other supernatural belief systems, to read both sides of the issue, but I warn you of one thing: conservative Christians will NEVER be satisfied with the number of Christian scholars you read UNTIL you finally agree with their position. Christians want you to read STACKS of books written by Christian scholars. Not just one or two, but STACKS. I have read NT Wright's “The Resurrection of the Son of God”, all 800+ pages, and I have studied the writings of Christian apologists such as Mike Licona and others, but it is never enough. I am always “ignorant” because I haven't read enough Christian literature/propaganda.

    Let me throw out this suggestion: If any religious person tries to convince you of the central supernatural claim of their Faith, such as that God gave Mohammad his “Word” in the form of the Koran while sitting in a cave, or Joseph Smith received God's new “Word” in the form of the Golden Plates on a farm in upstate New York, or the Buddha ordered a water buffalo to recite the words of a Hindu text in ancient India, or Christians and their claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus in first century Palestine, tell them this: I'll give you FIVE minutes to tell me the evidence for your supernatural claim. If within five minutes you convince me that the evidence for your claim is strong, I will read your religion's scholarly books. If not, I'm not going to waste my time.

    Isn't that reasonable? If Hindus can't give you strong evidence for a talking water buffalo within five minutes, are you really going to spend hours and hours reading Hindu books to verify their supernatural claim? I doubt it. So why should we demand any less from Christians??

    Dear Christians: Give us the evidence for the bodily Resurrection of Jesus in five minutes, and if it is strong, I will read your scholars' books. If all you have is hearsay, generalizations, and assumptions, I'm not going to waste my time reading a bunch of books.

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  10. Gary you write, “If you are saying that the gospels are the most studied texts of Antiquity, I agree. If you are saying that the gospels have the most copies of any text of Antiquity, I agree. But if you are saying that just because we have more copies of the gospels, and, they have been the most studied texts of Antiquity, we can believe what they say is historical fact, I would like to see your evidence to back up that statement.”

    As I suspected, you don't have a firm grasp concerning fundamental issues around how we arrive at the NT text. I am going to be hard here only because you are presenting your self as an expert through your blog. Go and study, get a solid understanding of manuscript attestation, then come back and deal with the evidence for the NT in a fair manner.

    Even Ehrman (whom you adore) states, “So it is absolutely true that the New Testament is far better attested than other ancient writings – pagan, Jewish, and Christian.”

    http://ehrmanblog.org/the-text-of-the-new-testament-are-the-textual-traditions-of-other-ancient-works-relevant/

    Your man agrees with me concerning the quality of attestation for the NT. He obviously dismisses miracles and the like, but not on the basis of the manuscript evidence.

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  11. Definition of “to attest”: to bear witness to; certify; declare to be correct, true, or genuine; declare the truth of, in words or writing, especially affirm in an official capacity.

    Yes, I agree with Ehramn. We have more copies of the Gospels than any other document from Antiquity. However, that in no way confirms the supernatural claim of the Resurrection…which is the point of THIS post.

    I am not contesting that Jesus existed. I am not contesting that the Gospels were written in the first century (or in the case of John, possibly the very early second century). I do not doubt that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was executed by the Romans. I do not deny that very early after Jesus death his disciples believed that he had been resurrected. I do not contest the existence of Paul nor his conversion. I contest the claim that the Gospels provide strong evidence for anyone to believe in a resurrection. I especially contest the claim that the RESURRECTION is the best attested event in Antiquity.

    So what's your problem??

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  12. I have yet to hear a conservative Christian make the following comment about ANY skeptic who criticizes traditional/conservative Christianity for its lack of good evidence regarding its supernatural claims: “Well, he or she may not agree with us, but he sure does understand the traditional Christian belief system well. He is obviously very well read in the works of Christian scholars.”

    Is it really possible that there are ZERO skeptics who understand the traditional Christian belief system when there are so many of us who were Christians for so many years?

    I have said this before: Dear Christians, if the evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus were as strong as Christians say it is (9 out of 10) you wouldn't need to refer us skeptics to a stack of books by Christian scholars. If your evidence were compelling, you could lay it out in plain English which anyone with or without any knowledge of the Bible or theology could understand, in five minutes…but you can't, can you?

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  13. There are thousands of extraordinary/supernatural claims in the world. Did YOU thoroughly examine each and every religious supernatural claim of every world religion before you chose to be a Christian? I doubt it. And if you grew up Christian, have you thoroughly investigated the supernatural claims of every religion on the planet to make sure you don't need to become a Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or a believer of one of the thousands of nativist religions? I doubt it. You haven't done the hours and hours of research into every supernatural claim in the world because you have briefly examined each claim as you have been confronted with it…and rejected the claim based on a brief summary of the evidence.

    So you are asking me to do something that you have not done yourself. I reject Christianity, based on doing much more research than you have done to reject the other thousands of supernatural based religious belief systems in the world.

    I ask you to present the evidence for the central claim of Christianity, the Resurrection, in five minutes and let's take a look at it. If you start making excuses that it takes much more time, and much more research to understand the evidence for this ONE alleged historical event, it will be evident to every unbiased observer that your evidence is not strong, but weak.

    One doesn't need to read a stack of books to believe that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon or that Alexander the Great sacked the city of Tyre. The evidence can be summed up very briefly.

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  14. And get this: many Christians state that there are ZERO other plausible explanations for the early Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection and the empty tomb. That means that the evidence for the Resurrection is indisputable to any rational person. If this is the case, five minutes should be more than enough time to present the evidence for this claim. So why is it so hard to get a Christian to do this??

    Bottom line: Either the evidence for the Resurrection is a slam dunk that any educated, rational person can immediately recognize in less than five minutes, or the evidence is so weak it needs a couple of clever attorneys (apologists) to construct its defense with the most elaborate of theories, generalizations, assumptions, and hearsay.

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  15. Ya Know, Gary –

    I try to just stay away from comments and let you pontificate as is your wont. But on the Resurrection, you have simply become hypocritical.

    Back in '13, i said the Resurection is not subject to proof, since it is an Article of Faith. Then, you even thanked putting that in its proper perspective.

    But lately, you have gone berserk to to force someone to “prove it” to you. Grab a clue or vowel or whatever you need here, Gary.

    It's still an Article of Faith.

    You won't get what you want. It's an empty shout, the petulant demand of someone so desperate to disprove Christianity, that you simply exceed the bound of reason to which you supposedly pledged your soul.

    You will never “disprove” the Resurrection” – and no one one will ever “prove” it to you. You already know that fact, but you try to bludgeon your readers with falsehood.

    Not very good use of reason, my friend. If you are so well read on both sides, you should know better.

    I mean, you might say your name is Gary and that you are a D.O. in the San Diego areas and all, but prove it from you words on this site.

    And if you proffer this or that as proof, how are we to know that you are really the Gary writing this claptrap?

    Fix your own potholes of reason before you run around trying to fix everyone else's. Or not. Heh!

    Pax – Jb

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  16. My debate regarding the Resurrection is not with persons like you who state that this alleged event can only be believed by faith; that there is no good historical evidence for it—but with apologists, such as “Nick” on Theology Web who believe that the evidence for the Resurrection is as good or better than the evidence for any other alleged event in Antiquity.

    So chill out, JB.

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